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Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory

Godfrey Hodgson
11 June 2008

The extraordinary, compelling race in the United States for the Democratic Party's presidential nominee has been settled in favour of Barack Obama. But a moment of triumph can also be one of danger. The candidate must now think seriously and decide what kind of candidate he wants to be. On the answer will depend his chances of success in the election on 4 November 2008.

Also in openDemocracy on the United States election:
openUSA
is a new part of the openDemocracy network, publishing daily commentary and analysis of the 2008 election - both from the United States itself and around the world - and links to the best campaign coverage

To access openUSA,
click hereThe last weeks of the primary, or pre-convention, campaign have not unrolled in an ideal fashion. Hillary Clinton may have finally found it in her - on 7 June 2008, three days after her rival's delegate-count effectively ensured his victory - to concede in a more or less graceful way; yet for weeks she seemed to have forgotten that whoever won the Democratic contest would have to beat John McCain before moving into the White House, and to be more interested in pummelling her party opponent than focusing on the main adversary.

Obama, for a time, looked close to running out of steam. In particular he showed himself less able than Clinton to win the big industrial states of the midwest which will be vital territory for the Democrats to win in November. It was unfortunate that Obama should have been caught saying that working-class voters in small industrial (or post-industrial) towns were "bitter", and expressed their bitterness in a tribal devotion to guns and God.

What was far worse was that Obama showed no great ability to empathise with those voters, losing all the way across the rust-belt from Pennsylvania by way of Ohio to Indiana. He will have to win at least two of those three states in November. It appears that his advisers are hoping that he can win all the states John Kerry won in 2004, and add a couple or three more. That, it seems to me, is a mistaken strategic concept.

Obama ought to be more ambitious than that. He must show that "the audacity of hope" is more than a phrase. If he can, the prize in his grasp is not to secure a "lock" on demographically defined blocks of voters, but to articulate a genuinely inspiring vision of how the country can work its way out of its present depressing difficulties.

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. He reported the presidential elections of 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976 for various British and American media, and was co-author (with Lewis Chester and Bruce Page) of the best-selling account of the 1968 campaign, An American Melodrama (Viking Press, 1969).

Among his other books are The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996);

The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan
(Houghton Mifflin 2000);

More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century
(Princeton University Press 2006); and

A Great and Godly Adventure:
The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffiars, 2007)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's recent openDemocracy articles on American politics:

"The United States: democracy in trouble" (30 September 2007)

"America in 2008: the next realignment?" (6 November 2007)

"Washington discovers Islamabad" (27 November 2007)

"The United States election: time for ‘change'"
(10 January 2008)

"America's change election: reality or mirage?"
(11 February 2008)

"'Superdelegates' and the US election"
(25 February 2008)

"The lost election year" (15 May 2008) A troubled legacy

Many millions of Americans understand that under the conservative Republicans their nation has lost its way. The economy is in a mess. Inequality - of incomes and life-chances - is so crass that America is becoming what it has not been for a hundred years: a class society where the structures of business and government reserve almost all the economy's gains to a handful at the apex of the pyramid (see "The next big issue: inequality in America", 13 September 2006). This has been facilitated by the substantial capture of the political system by the power of money, fundraising, lobbying and special interests.

The United States's troubles extend beyond its own shores. The country's position in the world has degenerated under George W Bush with alarming speed. The US spends more on "defence" than the rest of the world put together, but its overwhelming military superiority is not suited to contemporary requirements. The Bush administration, by blundering into the middle east with crass insensitivity, betrayed the very international norms of behaviour that were in their origin largely American. As a result of the "war on terror" and the war in Iraq, of torture and rendition and cynical rhetoric, the United States finds itself - after six decades of almost undisputed international leadership - unadmired and unloved to a painful extent. The visible lack of authority is evident too in the impatient expectancy with which his European hosts are viewing the American scene during the president's "farewell tour" of the continent on 9-16 June 2008.

This national predicament is something that Barack Obama instinctively understands. His mixed parentage and international background - the fact that he spent influential childhood years in Indonesia for example - helps here; but even more important is that he is a man of very keen intelligence, with an unusual capacity for empathy. When he says that he is for "change" it is not an empty slogan either in its utterance or its echo. The whole history of his campaign is evidence that many millions of American agree with him and share his desire to set out on another path (see Anthony Barnett, "Taking Obama seriously", 6 February 2008).

In the brief aftermath of his victory over Senator Clinton, however, he is at a crossroads. He understands, and plenty of advisers will reinforce the thought, that now he must reshape his campaign. So far, he has been able to rely on voters who were already on his side. The working rule is that the first half of an American presidential campaign is about getting to 26% of the electorate (that is, to just over half of a half); and that the second half, after the candidate has won the party nomination, is about getting to 51%. The conventional political wisdom, handed down through the generations, is that in the general election "you go hunting where the ducks are" - in the middle of the pond.

A compass-point

There are already signs that Barack Obama has listened to those counsels, especially in foreign policy. Even in the campaign's early stages he said that he would be prepared to send American forces into the tribal areas of Pakistan without local authorisation, a comment that was seized on as evidence of his unfamiliarity with the more sensitive of the US's foreign relationships. More recently, on a platform provided by the American Israel Political Action Committee, he used belligerent language about Iran and seemed to endorse the Zionist claim that a united Jerusalem must be the capital of Israel (see Paul Rogers, "Iran and the American election", 5 June 2008).

If such comments appear to be less in tune with Obama's intelligence and empathy, as well as his message of change, the likely explanation is that he is here speaking out of his true character: saying not what he instinctively believes, but what he thinks might win votes from parts of the electorate who do not share his vision of a transformed America. Whenever he does that - in effect tacking towards the conventional wisdom instead of keeping faith with his own - he is in danger of throwing away his greatest asset, which is precisely the fact that so many Americans do share his vision.

The implication is that now, in the short interval after his victory in the nomination race, Obama is indeed in peril. He is vulnerable to all those who want to make what insinuations they can of his unfamiliar, foreign-sounding name and of his half-black inheritance. True, many Americans are liberated of prejudice and proud that they can vote for a presidential candidate who is not white; but there are many others who secretly grudge and fear racial change. (As Larry O'Brien, sage counsellor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson once said to me about the George Wallace voters, there is the vote "a guy doesn't tell the pollsters about - the man vote a guy keeps in his gut, until he goes in that booth, and sees red, and pulls that lever!") In the desperate mud-slinging of a tight campaign, when the instrument that Obama's team has used so successfully to mobilise support and raise funds - the internet - can also be an unmatched vehicle for distributing smear and suspicion, the candidate's political compass needs to point him to higher ground.

A time for clarity

The point is reinforced by the less obvious fact that John McCain himself has not yet been exposed to more than the first, almost shy salvos of political abuse. McCain has great assets: he is an authentic military hero; he is also an original, who has shown himself willing (on climate change or campaign finance, for example) to step outside the disciplined phalanx of conservative Republican trusties - though the "maverick" too has been edging towards the centre under pressure of the prevailing wisdom about what is needed to win a presidential election.

So far, however, McCain has not been properly tested. On Capitol Hill, he is known for his fiery temper and barrack-room language. If he displays those characteristics on national television, the consequences will be grave. He has presented himself as the foe of the power of lobbyists in Washington, but he has had to get rid of half a dozen aides with a background in working for special interests (including two paid to promote the interests of Burma's military junta).

The Democrats have for so long in this close and passionate contest been so preoccupied with their internal divisions that they have not have a chance to highlight the considerable gaps between what McCain used to say in his freewheeling past, and what he is now saying as the chosen champion of the "grand old party". The opportunity to highlight the fact that McCain is actually to the right of George W Bush on Iraq and on tax policy is there, and the Democrats can now be expected to take it.

This is the moment, in a word, for Barack Obama to be himself. If he can articulate and condense his vision in the manner of his best speeches and his two brilliantly written books, he can rescue the 2008 election from the trench-warfare imposed by the near-equality between the Clinton and Obama camps. This would involve a clear statement that the election is about ending the conservative ascendancy, with its aggressive foreign policy and its commitment to the political folkways that have been turning America into a polarised society.

If he tries to portray himself as a polished professional who knows how to be all things to all men, he will lose. If he says the things he believes, with the eloquence and conviction that are natural to him, he will stand in contrast to a Republican whose virtues have been real but whose time has passed. And he will win.

 

 

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